The Utah House and Senate both passed a bill on Thursday that would provide businesses some immunity from civil litigation by customers or employees claiming to have been exposed to COVID-19.
Under Senate Bill 3007, sponsored by Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, business owners would be “immune from civil liability for damages or an injury resulting from exposure of an individual to COVID-19 on the premises owned or operated by the person (business owner), or during an activity managed by the person,” according to the bill’s text.
The bill specifies that businesses and business owners would still be liable for willful misconduct, reckless infliction of harm or intentional infliction of harm. Additionally, it would not modify the Utah Workers’ Compensation Act, Occupational Disease Act or Occupational Safety and Health Act.
Cullimore told his colleagues in the Senate on Thursday that S.B. 3007, which initially “addressed all virus contagions” but was since narrowed to only apply to COVID-19-related claims, would protect business owners who are concerned that they could be at an increased liability when the economy opens back up.
“A number of businesses … (in) this unprecedented time are concerned about what duty of care (they have) … (and) if that duty of care has changed to their employees and patrons from normal times,” said Cullimore, adding that “prior to this pandemic, it would have been really irregular if not impossible to bring a claim for somebody contracting the flu at your place of business.”
Cullimore, who is a practicing attorney, said he thought it would be “very difficult to prevail on a negligence claim related to the contracting of COVID-19.”
“But as business owners know, whether something may or may not prevail in litigation is not always necessarily the main economic concern,” said Cullimore. “Bringing a claim in and of itself is detrimental to business and an impediment to operating a business.”
Some senators expressed concern that the bill would decrease the standard of care that businesses legally have to provide and would ultimately hurt consumers.
“It could lower the bar,” said Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, who voted against the bill. “So that worries me.”
Cullimore said he didn’t think that would be the case since employees and patrons would be unlikely to support businesses that didn’t maintain sanitation standards or that otherwise put people at risk of contracting COVID-19.
“There are obviously some concerns about this (bill),” Cullimore said. “One concern is, will the businesses then just skirt their duty of care altogether? And I don’t think that’s the case. I think the free market’s going to work itself out.”
Iwamoto moved to amend the bill to include a requirement that businesses notify customers and employees “so that people going in know that they’re waiving a critical right” when entering a business establishment, but the amendment failed on a voice vote.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who also voted against the bill, said he didn’t think the Legislature should be providing immunity for the private sector.
“I think government immunity is for the government — and it’s controversial for the government,” Weiler said. “But when we start extending that carte blanche to private businesses, I think it’s a slippery slope. And so I’ve got some concerns about the bill.”
S.B. 3007 passed through the Senate on a 22-6 vote on Thursday morning and later through the House 54-21.
The Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce voiced its support for the bill on social media.
“Businesses have a strong incentive to create a safe and healthy environment as part of restoring customer confidence post-covid,” the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce tweeted on Thursday. “Protecting against lawsuits is reasonable.”